Conventional wisdom suggests the Nuggets would be better off not putting themselves in a double-digit hole come Game 7, but almost everything about this team is unorthodox.
Not much passes for normal when your center is actually a point guard trapped inside a 7-footer’s body.
“We don’t want to be in that spot, but it seems like we are good in that spot,” Nikola Jokic said of his team’s penchant for digging out of big deficits after Game 6.
The Clippers, who’ve lost two straight closeout games and are now 0-7 in their history when trying to clinch a spot in the Conference Finals, would be better off worrying about themselves than trying to rationalize whatever is happening inside Denver’s locker room.
So far this postseason they’ve staved off five elimination games, including three that featured deficits of at least 15 points in the second half. Instead of stress, the Nuggets shrug.
To win Game 7, which would be the first time in NBA history a team had come back from separate 3-1 deficits in the same postseason, the Nuggets must play their brand of basketball.
1. Avoid double-digit deficits
Before the Nuggets clawed back from a 19-point deficit in Game 6, they were actually already down 12 only a minute into the second quarter. Jokic’s goofy, one-legged 3-pointer cut the deficit to just two before the Clippers swarmed and built what seemed like an insurmountable lead.
Despite what the Nuggets and Jokic may say, there are nerves associated with elimination games. Denver can combat those nerves by being aggressive from the jump. That means playing selfless, purposeful basketball on offense and busting through screens and crashing the glass on defense.
Tough, physical defense will open up the Nuggets’ transition game, leading to easy points, while simultaneously making the Clippers work on offense. At the same time, the Nuggets can’t afford to turn the ball over, like they did 10 times in the first half of Game 6.
2. Bench play
Nuggets coach Michael Malone was only half kidding when he said the NBA would soon be re-naming the Sixth Man of the Year Award after Clippers reserve Lou Williams, a three-time winner. It was only last week that Williams’ teammate Montrezl Harrell won his first.
The Clippers were heralded as the deepest team in the league all year. And yet throughout this series, Williams and Harrell have combined for 20.8 points per game — 16 less than their regular-season averages. Williams has shot 13% from 3-point range, and reserve guard Landry Shamet has connected on just 17.6% from outside.
Conversely, Denver’s bench mob has been superb.
Monte Morris has done everything Malone could ask for and more, drilling timely baskets and setting the table for his scorers. In their three wins, Morris has averaged almost 11 points off the bench on 54% shooting.
Michael Porter Jr. has steadily earned the trust of Malone on the defensive end, while providing clutch 3-pointers on the other. His defensive effort at the end of Game 5 was invaluable.
Their other two key reserves, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig, have played their roles almost perfectly. For Plumlee, that means defensive energy, hard fouls and strong screens, and for Craig, that means hounding the Clippers’ wings.
3. Star power
The Nuggets knew the challenge they were in for in limiting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both two-way stars have been electric and caused myriad defensive problems.
Leonard’s bullish style is grueling for anyone to stop — his strength and ability to get to his spots almost unmatched in the NBA. And George has been a two-way terror, causing all kinds of headaches for Jamal Murray and draining 43% of his more than eight 3-point attempts per game. Together, they’ve averaged almost 50 points per game. And still, it’s probably fair to say that Jerami Grant and Gary Harris have done an admirable job on them.
But there’s something to be said about comfort. Leonard and George have never gone into a Game 7 environment together. Jokic and Murray have on three separate occasions, including last round against Utah.
Jokic’s attitude toward elimination has been well-documented. The pressure of going home doesn’t faze him at all. His numbers over their five elimination games are staggering.
Game 7 may come down to Murray’s ability to shake the avalanche of defenders coming his way. In their three wins, Murray’s averaged 24.7 points, including 53% shooting on 3s, six assists and 5.3 rebounds. In their losses, those numbers have plummeted to 14.7 points, on 33% 3-point shooting, 7.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds. To free up Murray, the Nuggets have to get stops, rebound and run. If they do that, they might just shock the world.